When we look up at the sky, we see stars. Stars are the building blocks of galaxies; we can see the stellar disk of the galaxy in which we live as the vault of the Milky Way arching across the sky. When we look beyond the Milky Way, we see galaxies. Just as stars are the building blocks of galaxies, galaxies are the building blocks of the universe. One can no more hope to understand cosmology without understanding galaxies than one can hope to understand galaxies without understanding stars.
Here I give a very brief primer on basic galaxy properties. This is a subject on which entire textbooks are written, so what I say here is necessarily very incomplete. It is a bare minimum to go on for the ensuing discussion.
Cosmology entered the modern era when Hubble (1929) resolved the debate over the nature of spiral nebulae by measuring the distance to Andromeda, establishing that vast stellar systems — galaxies — exist external to and coequal with the Milky Way. Galaxies are the primary type of object observed when we look beyond the confines of our own Milky Way: they are the building blocks of the universe. Consequently, galaxies and cosmology are intertwined: it is impossible to understand one without the other.
Here I sketch a few essential facts about the properties of galaxies. This is far from a comprehensive list (see, for example Binney & Tremaine, 1987) and serves only to provide a minimum framework for the subsequent discussion. The properties of galaxies are often cast in terms of morphological type, starting with Hubble’s tuning fork diagram. The primary distinction is between Early Type Galaxies (ETGs) and Late Type Galaxies (LTGs), which is a matter of basic structure. ETGs, also known as elliptical galaxies, are three dimensional, ellipsoidal systems that are pressure supported: there is more kinetic energy in random motions than in circular motions, a condition described as dynamically hot. The orbits of stars are generally eccentric and oriented randomly with respect to one another, filling out the ellipsoidal shape seen in projection on the sky. LTGs, including spiral and irregular galaxies, are thin, quasi-two dimensional, rotationally supported disks. The majority of their stars orbit in the same plane in the same direction on low eccentricity orbits. The lion’s share of kinetic energy is invested in circular motion, with only small random motions, a condition described as dynamically cold. Examples of early and late type galaxies are shown in Fig. 1.
Finer distinctions in morphology can be made within the broad classes of early and late type galaxies, but the basic structural and kinematic differences suffice here. The disordered motion of ETGs is a natural consequence of violent relaxation (Lynden-Bell, 1967) in which a stellar system reaches a state of dynamical equilibrium from a chaotic initial state. This can proceed relatively quickly from a number of conceivable initial conditions, and is a rather natural consequence of the hierarchical merging of sub-clumps expected from the Gaussian initial conditions indicated by observations of the CMB (White, 1996). In contrast, the orderly rotation of dynamically cold LTGs requires a gentle settling of gas into a rotationally supported disk. It is essential that disk formation occur in the gaseous phase, as gas can dissipate and settle to the preferred plane specified by the net angular momentum of the system. Once stars form, their orbits retain a memory of their initial state for a period typically much greater than the age of the universe (Binney & Tremaine, 1987). Consequently, the bulk of the stars in the spiral disk must have formed there after the gas settled.
In addition to the dichotomy in structure, ETGs and LTGs also differ in their evolutionary history. ETGs tend to be ‘red and dead,’ which is to say, dominated by old stars. They typically lack much in the way of recent star formation, and are often devoid of the cold interstellar gas from which new stars can form. Most of their star formation happened in the early universe, and may have involved the merger of multiple protogalactic fragments. Irrespective of these details, massive ETGs appeared early in the universe (Steinhardt et al., 2016), and for the most part seem to have evolved passively since (Franck and McGaugh, 2017).
Again in contrast, LTGs have on-going star formation in interstellar media replete with cold atomic and molecular gas. They exhibit a wide range in stellar ages, from newly formed stars to ancient stars dating to near the beginning of time. Old stars seem to be omnipresent, famously occupying globular clusters but also present in the general disk population. This implies that the gaseous disk settled fairly early, though accretion may continue over a long timescale (van den Bergh, 1962; Henry and Worthey, 1999). Old stars persist in the same orbital plane as young stars (Binney & Merrifield, 1998), which precludes much subsequent merger activity, as the chaos of merging distorts orbits. Disks can be over-heated (Toth and Ostriker, 1992) and transformed by interactions between galaxies (Toomre and Toomre, 1972), even turning into elliptical galaxies during major mergers (Barnes & Hernquist, 1992).
Aside from its morphology, an obvious property of a galaxy is its mass. Galaxies exist over a large range of mass, with a type-dependent characteristic stellar mass of 5 × 1010 M⊙ for disk dominated systems (the Milky Way is very close to this mass: Bland-Hawthorn & Gerhard, 2016) and 1011 M⊙ for elliptical galaxies (Moffett et al., 2016). Above this characteristic mass, the number density of galaxies declines sharply, though individual galaxies exceeding a few 1011 M⊙ certainly exist. The number density of galaxies increases gradually to lower masses, with no known minimum. The gradual increase in numbers does not compensate for the decrease in mass: integrating over the distribution, one finds that most of the stellar mass is in bright galaxies close to the characteristic mass.
Galaxies have a characteristic size and surface brightness. The same amount of stellar mass can be concentrated in a high surface brightness (HSB) galaxies, or spread over a much larger area in a low surface brightness (LSB) galaxy. For the purposes of this discussion, it suffices to assume that the observed luminosity is proportional to the mass of stars that produces the light. Similarly, the surface brightness measures the surface density of stars. Of the three observable quantities of luminosity, size, and surface brightness, only two are independent: the luminosity is the product of the surface brightness and the area over which it extends. The area scales as the square of the linear size.
The distribution of size and mass of galaxies is shown in Fig. 2. This figure spans the range from tiny dwarf irregular galaxies containing ‘only’ a few hundred thousand stars to giant spirals composed of hundreds of billions of stars with half-light radii ranging from hundreds of parsecs to tens of kpc. The upper boundaries represent real, physical limits on the sizes and masses of galaxies. Bright objects are easy to see; if still higher mass galaxies were common, they would be readily detected and cataloged. In contrast, the lower boundaries are set by the limits of observational sensitivity (“selection effects”): galaxies that are physically small or low in surface brightness are difficult to detect and are systematically under-represented in galaxy catalogs (Allen & Shu, 1979; Disney, 1976; McGaugh et al., 1995a).
Individual galaxies can be early type or late type, high mass or low mass, large or small in linear extent, high or low surface brightness, gas poor or gas rich. No one of these properties is completely predictive of the others: the correlations that do exist tend to have lots of intrinsic scatter. The primary exception to this appears to involve the kinematics. Massive galaxies are fast rotators; low mass galaxies are slow rotators. This Tully-Fisher relation (Tully and Fisher, 1977) is one of the strongest correlations in extragalactic astronomy (Lelli et al., 2016b). It is thus necessary to simultaneously explain both the chaotic diversity of galaxy properties and the orderly nature of their kinematics (McGaugh et al., 2019).
Galaxies do not exist in isolation. Rather than being randomly distributed throughout the universe, they tend to cluster together: the best place to find a galaxy is in the proximity of another galaxy (Rubin, 1954). A common way to quantify the clustering of galaxies is the two-point correlation function ξ(r) (Peebles, 1980). This measures the excess probability of finding a galaxy within a distance r of a reference galaxy relative to a random distribution. The observed correlation function is well approximated as a power law whose slope and normalization varies with galaxy population. ETGs are more clustered than LTGs, having a longer correlation length: r0 ≈ 9 Mpc for red galaxies vs. ~ 5 Mpc for blue galaxies (Zehavi et al., 2011). Here we will find this quantity to be of interest for comparing the distribution of high and low surface brightness galaxies.
Galaxies are sometimes called island universes. That is partly a hangover from pre-Hubble times during which it was widely believed that the Milky Way contained everything: it was one giant island universe embedded in an indefinite but otherwise empty void. We know that’s not true now – there are lots of stellar systems of similar size to the Milky Way – but they often seem to stand alone even if they are clustered in non-random ways.
For example, here is the spiral galaxy NGC 7757, an island unto itself.
NGC 7757 is a high surface brightness spiral. It is easy to spot amongst the foreground stars of the Milky Way. In contrast, there are strong selection effects against low surface brightness galaxies, like UGC 1230:
The LSB galaxy is rather harder to spot. Even when noticed, it doesn’t seem as important as the HSB galaxy. This, in a nutshell, is the history of selection effects in galaxy surveys, which are inevitably biased towards the biggest and the brightest. Advances in detectors (especially the CCD revolution of the 1980s) helped open our eyes to the existence of these LSB galaxies, and allowed us to measure their physical properties. Doing so provided a stringent test of galaxy formation theories, which have scrambled to catch up ever since.
8 thoughts on “Primer on Galaxy Properties”
Greetings, Professor, your first link (Binney & Tremaine, 1987) send us to
That is nice enough, but maybe you were meaning something like
Please keep your posts coming, they are very instructive and enjoyable.
are Galaxy Properties fractal ?
Is The Universe Actually A Fractal?
Thanks for your blog. I do not know much about astronomy, but you must be a great teacher : you give the will to learn more. Maybe because you are a researcher, I mean someone who wants to know and also to share. Anyway, thanks a lot.
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Here’s a naive question: if we could ‘cut’ one arm of a spiral galaxy and look at the shape of its cross-section, would it be roughly circular?
I don’t know. Spiral arms are composed of stars that move in and out of them, so the cross-sectional shape would have to be defined as isodensity contours in star counts. That said, and speaking only anecdotally, spiral arms are often wider than disks are thick. So my guess is that the would be roughly elliptical in cross-section. I would need to look into the literature to see if there is a better answer, which there probably is!
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My naive answer: how carefully are you looking? Many spirals have a thin disk at the heart of the arm, so you could see an overdensity This was done by ESA using Gaia, and used a *billion stars*. Some galaxies also have a thick disk composed for higher-velocity stars overlaying that. Besides being kinemetatically hotter, they are also younger with radial distance, and height above or below the plain. That was done using Ha vs. FeIII abundances, also over a large number of stars. Much smaller, because spectroscopy, but IIRC, 10 Ks of observations. It’s not a matter of declaring faster stars are expected ti be further away. I think this is still legitimately disputed.
Reading it all will take a while, and understanding yet more. Good times!
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